1810s

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Sir Thomas Lawrence, ‘John Philip Kembel as Hamlet’ (1802), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: A French Traveller [Louis Simond], Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811: with remarks on the country, its arts, literature, and politics, and on the manners and customs of its inhabitants (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1815), pp. 121-125

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet and George Colman the Younger, The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 21 April 1811

Text: April 21. — Hamlet was acted yesterday at Covent-Garden, and Kemble, the reigning prince of the English stage, filled the principal part. He understands his art thoroughly, but wants spirit and nature. His manner is precise and artificial; his voice monotonous and wooden; his features are too large, even for the stage. Munden in the part of Polonius, and Fawcett in the grave-digger, played charmingly. It is enough to mention the grave-diggers, to awaken in France the cry of rude and barbarous taste; and, were I to say how the part is acted, it might be still worse. After beginning their labour, and breaking ground for a grave, a conversation begins between the two grave-diggers. The chief one takes off his coat, folds it carefully, and puts it by in a safe corner; then, taking up his pick-axe, spits in his hand,— gives a stroke or two,— talks,— stops,— strips off his waistcoat, still talking, — folds it with great deliberation and nicety, and puts it with the coat, then an under-waistcoat, still talking, — another and another. I counted seven or eight, each folded and unfolded very leisurely, in a manner always different, and with gestures faithfully copied from nature. The British public enjoys this scene excessively, and the pantomimic variations a good actor knows how to introduce in it, are sure to be vehemently applauded. The French admit of no such relaxation in the dignité tragique.

L’éroite bienseance y veut être gardée;

and Boileau did not even allow Moliere to have won the prize of comedy, because he had

Quitté pour le bouffon l’agréable et le fin
Et sans honte a Terence allié Tabarin

much less would he or his school have approved of an alliance between tragedy and farce. Yet it may well be questioned whether the interest is best kept up by an uninterrupted display of elevation. For my part, I am inclined to think that the repose afforded by a comic episode renovates the powers of attention and of feeling, and prepares for new tragical emotions more effectually than an attempt to protract these emotions during the whole representation could have done. It is by no means usual for the different actors of the same scene, in real life, to be all equally affected. The followers of a hero do not feel as magnanimous as himself, and are even apt to laugh among themselves at his vices or his virtues. The hero himself is not always a hero, and does not speak invariably in the same tone. Indeed I do not know that it is unnatural for the same person to laugh and cry, within the same half hour, at the very same thing, or at least various views of the same thing; nor that this inconsistency of the human mind might not furnish stronger dramatic touches than the contrary quality. Poetical excitement cannot be maintained long at a time; you must take it up and lay it down like a flower, or soon cease to be sensible of the fragrance. If real illusion could ever take place in dramatic representation, it would certainly be produced rather by that diversity of tone and character which exists in nature, than by an artificial unity. But nobody does, in point of fact, forget for a moment, that what he sees is a fable, and, if he did, the effect of a tragedy would hardly be pleasure. We look on poetical terrors as we do from the brink of a precipice upon the yawning chasm below; it makes our head turn, and takes off our breath for very fear ; but, leaning on the parapet-wall, we feel all safe. Looking on the verdure and mild beauties around us, we enjoy the contrast; and, meeting the eye of our companion, exchange a smile.

Voltaire, D’Alembert, and many other foreign critics, agree in reproving this scene of the grave-diggers as horribly low, while they extol the soliloquy of Hamlet. Supposing, however, the sentiments of the prince had been put into the mouth of the peasant, and those of the peasant given to the prince, I question whether these critics would not still have taken part with the latter against the former. It is the spade and the jests which discredit the philosophy, yet there is a certain coarse but energetic fitness between the one and the other, — and the tone of buffoonery does not ill accord with the contempt of life, its vanities, and empty greatness. I have made a free translation of these two scenes, endeavouring to convey the ideas rather than the words, that my French readers may judge for themselves.

The tragedy of Hamlet is much more objectionable on other points, —being, in my opinion, one of the most ill conceived and inexplicable of Shakespeare’s plays,— which are all of them little else than mere frames for his ideas, comic or philosophical, gloomy or playful, as they occurred, without much attention to time and place; expressed with a vigour, a richness, and originality, quite wonderful in the original, but nearly lost in any translation. We might apply to Shakespeare what has been said of our Montaigne: “que personne ne savoit moins que lui, ce qu’il alloit dire, ni mieux ce qu’il disoit.” I have remarked before, that the style of Shakespeare is not old; and the inartificial texture of his plays appears the more strange on that account :— this style, just as it is, might be applied to the best conducted fable, and most regular argument. Of the dramatic writers who followed him, some avoided his irregularities, but missed his style, or rather had not his depth, his strength and genius; while others, and there is a recent example, approached that style, and had some sparks of that genius, but adopted, in their zeal, the inconsistencies, the coarseness, and even the puns. You can excuse, in a Gothic cathedral of five or six hundred years standing, those monkish figures carved on the walls, lolling their tongues out, or pointing the finger of scorn at each other, in low derision, and others still more indecent, in favour of the wonderful art, which, in such an age of darkness and ignorance, durst conceive, and could execute the idea of building this religious grove, rearing its arched boughs, and
lofty shades of hewn stones 150 feet above your head; — while the country-house of the wealthy citizen of London, mimicking that taste of architecture, excites a smile, — and if he should carry the imitation beyond the pointed arch, and painted windows, to the very indecencies I have mentioned, the ridicule would be complete.

The after-piece was Blue-Beard, which outdoes, in perversion of taste, all the other showy stupidities of the modern stage. A troop of horse (real horse) is actually introduced, or rather two troops, charging each other full speed, — the floor is covered with earth, — the horses are Astley’s, and well drilled; they kick, and rear, and bite, and scramble up walls almost perpendicular, and when they can do no more, fall, and die as gracefully as any of their brethren, the English tragedians. All this might do very well at Astley’s, but what a pity and a shame that horses should be the successors of Garrick, and bring fuller houses than Mrs Siddons!

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The production of Hamlet that he saw at Covent Garden featured John Philip Kemble as Hamlet and Joseph Munden as Polonius and John Fawcett as the gravedigger. The afterpiece was George Colman the Younger‘s 1798 play The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity. Astley’s Amphitheatre in London was famed for its circus and equestrian entertainments.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley

Source: Richard Edgecumbe (ed.), The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley (New York: C. Scribner’s, 1912-1913), vol. 2, pp. 58-59

Text: As we passed the theatre we decided to enter, and hear Miss Stephens sing Scotch ballads to a Scottish audience. Much to our surprise we found the theatre so empty that we obtained seats in the front row. This led to some conversation afterwards relative to the sobriety in the search for amusement which is so characteristic of the people of Edinburgh. Some years ago Catalani gave a concert here. Every place was crowded, and she reaped a rich harvest. The next year she was tempted to come again, and the contrast was most striking; no one who had heard her before went again. When asked the reason, they replied that they had heard her. There was no satire in this, for the same thing occurred with Miss O’Neill. I saw her play, literally, to empty benches, and was able to obtain a seat in the front row. This is the more remarkable, as at her first visit the pressure was so great that people were fainting. All the boxes had been taken previous to her arrival in Edinburgh. I never admired Miss Stephens so much as on this occasion. The small theatre was favourable to her articulation, and I did not lose a word of that pathetic ballad “Auld Robin Gray,” which was rapturously encored, and no wonder, for she sings it with a degree of pathos difficult to describe. There was not a note, nor an intonation, which did not express in its fullest sense the pure feelings and sentiments of that most exquisite piece of poetry. I have always been of opinion that “Auld Robin Gray” affords the best example of female virtue, based on principle and sensibility, to be found in the English language. In a pure mind, like Lady Anne Lindsay’s, the spear of Ithuriel would instantly dissipate the sophism of Rousseau, and depict in their true colours and in their natural deformity the vaunted perfections of his Héloïse.

Comments: Frances Lady Shelley (1787-1873) was a well-connected, vivacious British society figure, whose lively diaries (edited by her grandson) include several accounts of theatregoing. Catherine Stephens, Countess of Essex (1794-1822) was an English concert and opera singer and actress. Eliza O’Neill was an English tragic actress (1791-1872). ‘Auld Robin Gray’ is a ballad by Lady Anne Lindsay. The Edinburgh theatre was presumably the Theatre Royal in Princes Street.

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A Persian at the Court of King George

Source: Mirza Abul Hassan Khan (ed./trans. Margaret Morris Cloake), A Persian at the Court of King George: The Journal of Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, 1809-10 (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1988), p. 232

Text: 14 May [1810]

My friends told me about a theatre on the outskirts of London called ‘Astley’s Amphitheatre’, which opens in the spring, and where one can watch horses dancing. I went there with Sir Gore Ouseley. The theatre is somewhat smaller than the others I have seen and described in this journal.

I will describe the performance of one of the nimble riders who stood on a horse’s back, without holding the reins, while the horse continued to run around the circular arena. Sometimes he jumped down to the ground and back up again; sometimes he stood on one foot, or lay down, or stood on his head with his legs in the air; sometimes he would vault himself from one side of the horse to the other; or, grasping the horse’s body with his legs, he would hang underneath with his hands trailing on the ground. Then a second horse was brought in to run alongside the first. The rider jumped back and forth from one horse to the other, dancing and clapping his hands. A third horse was added and he continued dancing. Most amazing of all was his feat of jumping from one side to the other over all three horses!

The owner of the theatre was a friendly man; he explained to me how the horses are trained to perform these tricks. My Iranian servants were amazed and astonished by what they had seen.

As we left the theatre, I told Sir Gore Ouseley I thought the horses performed so well that it should be called the ‘Horse Opera’.

Comments: Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, or Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ilchi (1776-1845) was an Iranian ambassador who headed a diplomatic mission to Great Britain in 1809-1810. Astley’s Amphitheatre was originally a circus (opened 1770), but later put on pantomimes and other such entertainments. It was located by Westminster Bridge and had burned down twice before it became famous in the 1800s for its equestrian spectaculars, such as seen by Mirza Abul Hassan Khan.

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Source: A French Traveller [Louis Simond], Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811: with remarks on the country, its arts, literature, and politics, and on the manners and customs of its inhabitants (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1815), pp. 126-127

Production: John G. Millingen and Charles E. Horn, The Bee-hive, Lyceum Theatre, London, 30 April 1811

Text: April 30. — I have already given a literal translation of one of those lyric pieces which are introduced in many English farces, and are often sung between he play and the farce. At Edinburgh we heard Bannister, and here Mathews, sing some of these select pieces with a great deal of true comic, and what is called here dry humour. Yesterday, particularly, Mathews delighted the public of the Lyceum in a new play, called the Bee-hive, played forty times running. The song of an inn-keeper, who enumerates the contents of his larder and kitchen, was encored again and again, with frantic applause. Other songs, however, which happened to be less in the popular taste, were received with coolness, and we heard some men behind us exclaim, among themselves, “Italian squalls!— What a shame, on a British theatre, — Just like the opera by G— !” Whenever I have expressed any surprise at the state of the English stage, I have been told that it was only the amusement of the vulgar, and that if I chose to partake of it, I must not complain. Admitting that people of fashion scarcely ever go to the theatre, yet the lowest of the people do not frequent it more then they do; — it is in fact filled by the middle class, neither the highest nor the lowest, and that is precisely the class where I should look for the true and legitimate national taste. Besides, if the theatres of Covent-Garden and Drury-Lane are for the vulgar, what other is there left for those who rank themselves above the vulgar? The opera, — in other words, there is no national theatre.

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The Bee-hive was a two-act music farce with libretto by John G. Millingen and music by Charles E. Horn.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry

Source: Lady Theresa Lewis (ed.), Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry, from the year 1783 to 1852 (London: Longmans, Green, 1865), pp. 167-168

Production: Antoine de la Fosse, Manlius Capitolinus and Marc-Antoine Legrand, L’Aveugle Clairvoyant, Comédie-Française, Paris, 6 July 1818

Text: Monday, July 6th. — M. de Duras gave us tickets for this week in the box of the gentlemen in waiting. I arrived in time to see the last scene’ of Talma, in ‘Manlius.’ It was the night of his return to the theatre after rather a long absence. On the curtain falling, they called loudly for him, with a noise and a disturbance much more like London than Paris. Three times they in vain began the second piece; it was impossible to hear a word. Three times the two actresses who had to commence the piece took refuge in the side scenes. At last, whilst Baptiste Cadet came forward to address the audience, some officer of the police, in his scarf of office, announced that, by an order of the police, the actors were forbidden to appear upon the stage out of their parts. One might well ask why this rule? which prevents the audience from showing, and the actor from receiving, these marks of approbation. They have much to learn in this country upon the ne quid nimis in the way of government. At last the audience was asked if they would have the second piece, ‘L’Aveugle Clairvoyant.’ Upon the reiterated ‘Ouis’ from the pit, they replied, ‘Vous l’aurez quand ces misérables criards ont cesses.’ On this the noise was renewed for some minutes, after which we had the piece very well acted and very amusing.

Comments: Mary Berry (1763-1852) was a British editor, letter writer and diarist, known for her close association with Horace Walpole. Her published journals and correspondence include many theatregoing references. François-Joseph Talma (1762-1826) was the leading French actor of the period. One of his most celebrated roles was than of Manlius in Manlius Capitolinus, the 1698 Roman tragedy by Antoine de La Fosse. L’Aveugle Clairvoyant was written by the prolific French playwright Marc-Antoine Legrand.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Philipp Von Neumann

Source: E. Beresford Chancellor (ed.), The Diary of Philipp von Neumann, vol. 1 (London: Philip Allan, 1928), p. 5

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Covent Garden Teahtre, London, 27 September 1819

Text: Sept. 27th. While riding in Hyde Park my groom fell from his horse and hurt his foot badly. I dined at the Piazza Coffee House and later went to Lady Floyd who had offered me a place at her box at Covent Garden. They performed Hamlet. Charles Kemble filled the title-rôle, and did it very well. He has a noble presence, but puts too much pathos into the part for which, too, he is not young enough. Miss Mathews as Ophelia so overdid the character, one of the most interesting in English tragedy, that she almost made a caricature of it. It is a pity that a play containing so many beauties should be spoilt, as most of Shakespeare’s are, by certain blemishes of taste. In spite of excisions, much had been left in which may suit the spirit of the people but to which others object. The management has to consider the former rather than the latter.

Comments: Baron Philipp von Neumann (1781-1851) was an Austrian diplomat, posted at the Austrian embassy in London during the 1810s and 1820s. His diaries provide a detailed account of the political and high society life of the time, and document his many visits to the theatre and opera. Charles Kemble, at the time of this production, was forty-four years old. Miss Mathews (presumably related to theatre manager Charles Mathews) had stood in at short notice for Ann Maria Tree, who was unwell.

The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley

Source: Richard Edgecumbe (ed.), The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley (New York: C. Scribner’s, 1912-1913), pp. 104-105

Production: André Grétry and Michel-Jean Sedaine, Richard Coeur-de-lion, Théâtre Feydeau, Paris, July 1815

Text: The Prussians are quartered all over Paris; and wherever they suspect the loyalty of the inhabitants they keep quartering more soldiers upon them. Our men are quartered out of the town – in the Bois de Boulogne – the officers excepted. One evening we went to the Théâtre Feydeau, opera comique. The first piece was ending as we entered the house, and some couplets were sung in praise of Louis XVIII; they were received with violent applause by the whole audience. One man, however, ventured to hiss, whereupon there was a great disturbance, and the individual in question was thrown out of the pit. The couplets were then encored amid tumultuous expressions of delight. It was a moving scene. The petit-pièce was entitled “Richard Coeur de Lion.” The man who represented Blondel had been with the King to Ghent, and was consequently much applauded. He sang well, and with real feeling. When Marguerite in the play said, “Vous etiez avec le Roi,” the cheering was beyond description. I cannot describe the enthusiasm which prevailed throughout the house. The theatre is dirty, the boxes small and insufferably hot.

Comments: Frances Lady Shelley (1787-1873) was a well-connected, vivacious British society figure, whose lively diaries (edited by her grandson) include several accounts of theatregoing. At the time of this diary entry, Paris was occupied by British and Prussian troops following the defeat of Napoleon. She saw the opéra comique Richard Coeur-de-lion composed by André Grétry, with a libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine, at the Théâtre Feydeau. It was an immensely popular work, first performed in 1784, but was not presented in France during the revolutionary period, owing to its royalist theme.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Source: A French Traveller [Louis Simond], Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811: with remarks on the country, its arts, literature, and politics, and on the manners and customs of its inhabitants (Edinburgh : Archibald Constable, 1815), pp. 258-259

Production: Thomas Morton, The Cure for the Heart-ache and George Colman the Younger, The Quadrupeds of Quedlinburgh; or, The Rover of Weimar, Haymarket Theatre, London, July 1811

Text: The comedy called the Cure for the Heart-ache was acted yesterday at the theatre of the Hay-market. Elliston and Munden appeared in it, and gave us great pleasure, although they exaggerated the exaggerations of the play. But the taste of the English public requires this, — as thistles alone have power to stimulate the palate of certain animals. The object of the petite piece called the Quadrupeds of Quedlinburgh, was to ridicule the perverted morality and sentiments of the German drama, and at the same time the exhibition of horses on the stage. One of the personages has two wives, and one of the wives two husbands. One of the husbands, a prisoner in the castle of a merciless tyrant (Duke of Saxe Weimar) is liberated by the other husband, for no other apparent purpose but to get rid of one of his wives. He besieges the castle with a troop of horse, and batters down its walls with pistol-shot. The horses consist of a head and a tail, fastened before and behind the performers, with two sham legs of the rider, dangling about on each side, and a deep housing hiding the real legs. All the cant, childishness, grossness, and crude philosophy of the German drama was, of course, mustered together, and excited much risibility; the horses climbed walls, leapt, kicked, fought, lay down, and died, as Mr Kemble’s horses might have done. All this was very ridiculous, — but I am not sure that the laugh of the audience was not more with the thing ridiculed, than at it. The English public is not easily burlesqued out of its pleasures, and to it a caricature is still a likeness. Some friends of the real quadrupeds hissed, but clapping got the better. The pale face and nares acutissimae of the ex-minister, Mr Canning was pointed out to us in the next box, in company with Lord M.; he laughed very heartily, — and the nature of the laugh of the author of the Antijacobin could not be mistaken.

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The productions he saw at the Haymarket were Thomas Morton‘s comedy The Cure for the Heart-Ache, with Robert Elliston and Joseph Munden, and the afterpiece The Quadrupeds of Quedlinburgh; or, The Rover of Weimar, by George Colman the Younger. This was a parody of Timour the Tartar, a popular equistrian afterpiece by M.G. ‘Monk’ Lewis which had been put on at Covent Garden. The British politician (and future Prime Minister) George Canning had founded the newspaper The Anti-Jacobin and had written a dramatic parody, The Rovers, from which Colman borrowed ideas.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson

Charles Turner, ‘Edmund Kean as Richard III’ (1814), via Wikiart

Source: Thomas Sadler (ed.), Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Macmillan, 1869), vol. I, pp. 273-274

Production: William Shakespeare, Richard III, Drury Lane, London, 7 March 1814

Text: March 7th. — At Drury Lane, and saw Kean for the first time. He played Richard, I believe, better than any man I ever saw; yet my expectations were pitched too high, and I had not the pleasure I expected. The expression of malignant joy is the one in which he surpasses all men I have ever seen. And his most flagrant defect is want of dignity. His face is finely expressive, though his mouth is not handsome, and he projects his lower lip ungracefully; yet it is finely suited to Richard. He gratified my eye more than my ear. His action very often was that of Kemble, and this was not the worst of his performance; but it detracts from his boasted originality. His declamation is very unpleasant, but my ear may in time be reconciled to it, as the palate is to new cheese and tea. It often reminds me of Blanchard’s. His speech is not fluent, and his words and syllables are too distinctly separated. His finest scene was with Lady Anne, and his mode of lifting up her veil to watch her countenance was exquisite. The concluding scene was unequal to my expectation, though the fencing was elegant, and his sudden death-fall was shockingly real. But he should have lain still. Why does he rise, or awake rather, to repeat the spurious lines? He did not often excite a strong persuasion of the truth of his acting, and the applause he received was not very great. Mrs. Glover had infinitely more in the pathetic scene in which she, as Queen Elizabeth, parts from her children. To recur to Kean, I do not think he will retain all his popularity, but he may learn to deserve it better, though I think he will never be qualified for heroic parts. He wants a commanding figure and a powerful voice. His greatest excellences are a fine pantomimic face and remarkable agility.

Comments: Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) was an English lawyer and diarist, whose published journals document his acquaintance with literary figures of the period and refer regularly to theatre productions that he saw. Edmund Kean (1787-1833) first came to general attention, in January 1814 playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at Drury Lane, which was followed by Gloucester in Richard III. His visceral performances excited huge audience enthusiasm and established his reputation. Queen Elizabeth was played by Julia Glover.

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The Diary of an Invalid

Source: Henry Matthews, Diary of an Invalid, being the Journal of a Tour in pursuit of health; in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and France, in the years 1817, 1818, and 1819 vol. 1 (London: J. Murray, 1824, 4th edition), p. 141

Production: unidentified opera, Rome, 8 January 1818

Text: In the evening we went to the Italian comedy, which was so tiresome that we could not endure more than one scene. We drove afterwards to the opera. The theatre large and handsome;— six tiers of boxes. The seats in the pit are numbered, and divided off separately with elbows:— so that you may take any one of them in the morning, and secure it for the whole evening. Some plan of this kind would surely be a great improvement in our own theatres. The dancing was bad, and the singing worse. A set of burlesque dancers amused us afterwards, by aping the pirouettes of the others. The dancing of the stage gives but too much foundation for such caricatures. It is daily becoming less elegant, as the difficult is substituted for the graceful. What can be more disgusting than to see the human figure twirling round with the legs at right angles? In such an attitude, “Man delights not me nor woman neither.” All postures to be graceful should be easy and natural, and what can be more unnatural than this?

Comments: Henry Matthews (1789-1828) was a British judge. On account of ill health, he went on a recuperative tour of Europe over 1817-1819. The published diary of his travels, The Diary of an Invalid (1820), was very popular and went through a number of editions. The two-volume diary has several entries on theatregoing. The theatre he visited in Rome may have been the Teatro Argentina.

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